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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

How do you understand a tree? (or under stand it)

How do you understand a tree?

In simplest terms, there are two methods.

1) Holism (Here's the Wikipedia article on the subject)
Stand under a tree. Feel its bark, smell the tree, listen to the wind through the leaves and twigs. Watch the bugs climbing it. Look at how the tree affects other plants.

2) Reductionism (Here's the Wikipedia article on Scientific Reductionism)
The other method is to analyze the tree by destroying it. Take the tree's square root. Count the twigs, branches and buds. Analyze its DNA. Measure its photosynthesis rate.

Both of these methods have their strengths. Holistic tree observation could be taught in college as Tree Appreciation. It may lead to poetry and devotional thoughts. Scientifically, this method sees the tree in context. What is the value of the tree to surrounding organisms? What do the fungi connected to its roots do for the tree? What is the effect of climate and soil? Are the tree's neighbors like it? Are they its offspring, or parents, or siblings?

Robert A. Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has recently written the following, which shows that he is not satisfied with reductionisn:
What physical science thus has to tell us is that the whole being more than the sum of its parts is not merely a concept but a physical phenomenon. Nature is regulated not only by a microscopic rule base but by powerful and general principles of organization. Some of these principles are known, but the vast majority are not. New ones are being discovered all the time. At higher levels of sophistication the cause-and-effect relationships are harder to document, but there is no evidence that the hierarchical descent of law found in the primitive world is superseded by anything else. Thus if a simple physical phenomenon can become effectively independent of the more fundamental laws from which it descends, so can we. I am carbon, but I need not have been. I have a meaning transcending the atoms from which I am made.

Reductionistic tree observation is seldom practiced. Trees are too big, and their generation time is way too slow. (Some such is being done. See also here.) Reductionistic observation is more likely practiced on microorganisms, like Escherichia coli. (There's an E. coli encyclopedia, and its genome has been sequenced.)

What good is reductionistic observation? Well, it tells us something about ourselves. Western medicine is often reductionistic. Treat the disease as if it were in isolation, not the patient. This clearly has some problems, but it has also helped to cut way down on deaths from infection, treat nutritional disorders, help people with depression, and done a lot of other good things. Reductionistic observation of tree tissues, and tree genetics, may make paper manufacture more efficient, or lead to increased fruit production, or cure tree diseases.

We need to see trees, and ourselves, in context, and as whole beings. It's also good if someone can see our blood sugar levels, and what we are producing in our urine. Reductionism and holism both have their place. Both trees, and the atoms from which they are made, have meanings.

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